What Is Actually Happening: 2023
The collection of writings by Alfred Delp, S.J. which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago has a long introduction by Thomas Merton. I'm not a Merton enthusiast, having found what I've read of his work (not all that much) a somewhat mixed bag, but this essay, dated October 1962, is excellent.
Fr. Delp reminds us that somewhere in the last fifty years we have entered a mysterious limit set by Providence and have entered a new era. We have, in some sense, passed a point of no return, and it is both useless and tragic to continue to live in the nineteenth century.... [T]here has been a violent disruption of society and a radical overthrow of that modern world which goes back to Charlemagne.
Now, sixty years after Merton wrote this, roughly eighty years since Delp wrote, the truth of these words is hardly arguable. The end of the Christian era and its impending replacement by something yet to be known had already been a frequent topic of notice and speculation since sometime in the 19th century and has continued ever since, so neither Delp nor Merton can be credited with any unusual insight on that point alone. The difference between them and, say, Matthew Arnold ("two worlds, one dead") or Yeats ("what rough beast") was that they were seeing the likely shape of the new age: violent totalitarianism.
Delp was, naturally, speaking mostly, and with the utmost personal concern, of Nazism and the devastating war it had brought upon the world. And much of Merton's essay takes up a similar theme. After quoting Delp that "Modern man is not even capable of knowing God," Merton says:
In order to understand these harsh assertions by Fr. Delp we must remember they were written by a man in prison, surrounded by Nazi guards. When he speaks of "modern man," he is in fact speaking of the Nazis or of their accomplices and counterparts.
Delp and Merton both feared that violent totalitarianism might be the most characteristic face of the new age, though both were wise enough to see that it was only the face, and that the inner nature of the thing involved, in fact required, a revolution in the idea of what human life is, what it is for, and what it can be.
The Soviet Union continued to carry the totalitarian banner until 1990. And when it fell there was a sigh of relief: that danger had been quashed, maybe or even probably forever, and modernity, understood as a general application of classical liberalism, was free to continue on the wide bright road illuminated by the twin beacons of Science and Freedom. But liberalism had either turned into or been replaced by something else: the same philosophical or religious disease that had produced fascism and communism, the faith and hope that mankind (or, in the case of fascism, a certain subset thereof) can achieve self-salvation by transforming the immanent world.
This involves the liberation of mankind, either collectively or individually or both, from the limitations which thwart us. It requires, first, liberation from God, who always in one way or another says "Thou shalt not" to something that man deeply wants to do. And then it involves all other constraints once thought (still thought by many) to be an essential part of the way things are, not subject to removal. These include, especially include, physical reality. As for moral reality--well, is there any morality apart from that which produces a result which makes us happy? And don't trouble yourself too much about analyzing the nature of happiness: how can it be anything but a condition of comfort in both mind and body? And every person will have his own view of what that entails.
In apparent, but not actual, contradiction, this total liberation requires molding and controlling people to make them fit inhabitants of the new age. If it doesn't begin with explicit totalitarianism, it eventually arrives there, because people won't naturally become what the ideology requires that they become. The fanatical progressivism that has seized so much of our culture is of this cloth. At bottom it's of a piece with fascism and communism, in that it is an attempt to create a new humanity. It isn't very violent now and may never be, because it exercises so much power without violence, and is steadily gaining more. If it can, for instance, close off certain important lines of work to anyone who dissents from its program, or shut down the public expression of dissenting views, it doesn't need violence. (If you think it isn't working on those and achieving some results, you aren't paying attention.)
I'm hardly the first or only person to make these basic observations. I'm working up to saying two things:
1) We can now see pretty clearly the shape of the new ideal of civilization that is replacing the Christian one. And we can see that it is in essence a product of the same force that produced fascism and communism, even though progressivism, loathes the former and doesn't take the crimes of the latter very seriously, and in principle abhors violence. But compulsion may be exercised without violence. Relatively non-violent totalitarianism--"soft totalitarianism," as some have called it--may succeed where violent hard totalitarianism failed.
2) The thing that I refer to as a "force" is the spirit of Antichrist. I've never been one, and still am not one, to make judgments about whether we are or are not in the end times. Maybe we are, maybe we aren't. And I don't claim that we are now or soon will be under the rule of the Antichrist. What I think is pretty clear is that the spiritual driving force of the current effort to remake humanity is the same one that will become or will produce, if it hasn't already, the Antichrist. "You will become as gods." It may not be the regime of the actual Antichrist, but it is of the Antichrist.
Rod Dreher recently quoted a letter of Pope Benedict:
We see how the power of the Antichrist is expanding, and we can only pray that the Lord will give us strong shepherds who will defend his church in this hour of need from the power of evil.
In short, this is What Is Actually Happening, and it's important that Christians recognize it and have no illusions about it, especially as the humanitarian aspects of the Antichristic spirit are often superficially similar to Christian ethics. The essential difference is that the former always points and leads away from God, where the latter always points and leads toward him.
These thoughts were provoked not only by Delp and Merton, but by a remark in a fascinating book which I recently began to read: Jacques Barzun's history of the modern world, From Dawn to Decadence. This was another case when I picked up a book from the library discard shelf, let it sit around for a couple of years, and then, when I moved recently and had to pack up the books, considered giving it back to the library. But I leafed through it, read the opening pages, and decided to keep it.
The book begins with the Protestant revolution. In discussing Puritanism, Barzun says this:
Revolutions paradoxically begin by promising freedom and then turn coercive and "puritanical," to save themselves from both discredit and reaction.
Is that the meaning of the frenzied efforts by fanatical progressives to restrict any and all speech that contradicts their views or even causes them distress? Many institutions and areas of life are now well under their control, but there is certainly reaction. Maybe the intensity of the effort to suppress it is indicative of a grip not yet as tight as it wishes to be.